US Supreme Court rejects use of race in admissions at UNC Chapel Hill, Harvard

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  • The U.S. Supreme Court struck down, with a 6-3 vote, the use of race in admissions policies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard.
  • Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. He emphasized that the Supreme Court had placed a time limit on continued use of race-based admissions preferences in the earlier Grutter v. Bollinger case.
  • A concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas emphasized the importance of a colorblind U.S. Constitution.

In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the use of race in admissions policies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard University.

The case produced opinions from six of the nine justices. Their arguments stretched over 237 pages.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the six-justice majority. He emphasized that the court had warned 20 years ago, in a case called Grutter v. Bollinger, that the use of race as a factor in college admissions eventually would end.

“Grutter expressed marked discomfort with the use of race in college admissions,” Roberts wrote. “The Court stressed the fundamental principle that ‘there are serious problems of justice connected with the idea of [racial] preference itself.’ It observed that all ‘racial classifications, however compelling their goals,’ were ‘dangerous.’ And it cautioned that all ‘race-based governmental action’ should ‘remai[n] subject to continuing oversight to assure that it will work the least harm possible to other innocent persons competing for the benefit.’”

“To manage these concerns, Grutter imposed one final limit on race-based admissions programs. At some point, the Court held, they must end,” Roberts wrote. “This requirement was critical, and Grutter emphasized it repeatedly.”

“The importance of an end point was not just a matter of repetition,” the chief justice explained. “It was the reason the Court was willing to dispense temporarily with the Constitution’s unambiguous guarantee of equal protection.”

“Grutter thus concluded with the following caution: ‘It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity in the context of public higher education. … We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

“Twenty years later, no end is in sight,” Roberts wrote. “’Harvard’s view about when [race-based admissions will end] doesn’t have a date on it.’ Neither does UNC’s. Yet both insist that the use of race in their admissions programs must continue.”

“But we have permitted race-based admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions. University programs must comply with strict scrutiny, they may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and — at some point — they must end. Respondents’ admissions systems — however well intentioned and implemented in good faith — fail each of these criteria. They must therefore be invalidated under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Roberts concluded.

Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion but wrote a separate concurring opinion “to clarify that all forms of discrimination based on race — including so-called affirmative action — are prohibited under the Constitution; and to emphasize the pernicious effects of all such discrimination.”

“In an effort to salvage their patently unconstitutional programs, the universities and their amici pivot to argue that the Fourteenth Amendment permits the use of race to benefit only certain racial groups — rather than applicants writ large. Yet, this is just the latest disguise for discrimination,” Thomas wrote. “The sudden narrative shift is not surprising, as it has long been apparent that ‘diversity [was] merely the current rationale of convenience’ to support racially discriminatory admissions programs.’ Under our precedents, this new rationale is also lacking.”

“Both experience and logic have vindicated the Constitution’s colorblind rule and confirmed that the universities’ new narrative cannot stand,” Thomas added.

“The Constitution’s colorblind rule reflects one of the core principles upon which our Nation was founded: that ‘all men are created equal.’ Those words featured prominently in our Declaration of Independence and were inspired by a rich tradition of political thinkers, from Locke to Montesquieu, who considered equality to be the foundation of a just government,” Thomas wrote.

A concurring opinion from Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act also should block the UNC Chapel Hill and Harvard admissions policies.

“In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress took vital steps toward realizing the promise of equality under the law,” Gorsuch wrote. “As important as those initial efforts were, much work remained to be done — and much remains today. But by any measure, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as a landmark on this journey and one of the Nation’s great triumphs. We have no right to make a blank sheet of any of its provisions.”

“And when we look to the clear and powerful command Congress set forth in that law, these cases all but resolve themselves. Under Title VI, it is never permissible ‘to say “yes” to one person … but to say “no” to another person’ even in part ‘because of the color of his skin.’”

Another concurrence from Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that the latest court ruling is “consistent with and follows from the Court’s equal protection precedents, including the Court’s precedents on race-based affirmative action in higher education.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote one of two dissents. She would have upheld the two universities’ admissions policies.

“The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment enshrines a guarantee of racial equality,” she wrote. “The Court long ago concluded that this guarantee can be enforced through race-conscious means in a society that is not, and has never been, colorblind.”

“Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress,” Sotomayor added. “It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits. In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter. The Court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a separate dissent in the UNC Chapel Hill case. Jackson took no part in the Harvard case.

“Gulf-sized race-based gaps exist with respect to the health, wealth, and well-being of American citizens,” she wrote. “They were created in the distant past, but have indisputably been passed down to the present day through the generations. Every moment these gaps persist is a moment in which this great country falls short of actualizing one of its foundational principles — the ‘self-evident’ truth that all of us are created equal. Yet, today, the Court determines that holistic admissions programs like the one that the University of North Carolina (UNC) has operated, consistent with Grutter v. Bollinger, are a problem with respect to achievement of that aspiration, rather than a viable solution (as has long been evident to historians, sociologists, and policymakers alike).”